[Incidentally, I cannot take credit for this brilliant formulation: I lifted it from Clive James, another writer whose work I unjustly neglected and have been enjoying recently.]
Spurred on by the notices Banville regularly gets in one of the blogs I read on occasion, and enjoy, The Elegant Variation, I went on to investigate a few more of his books, visiting first the Revolutions trilogy (into which I failed to make sufficient inroads before the library fines prohibited further advances), and then attacking his retelling of the Faust myth, Mefisto, in the course of reading which, a strange, hypnotic compulsion drew me on to the end, despite myself. After that I went to Shroud, mostly on the strength of Banville’s own opinion on the book. Usually authors’ judgements of their own works are to be held in the utmost suspicion, but in this case I can happily report that this is, indeed, a great book.
Whether Shroud is some kind of roman à clef – it isn’t, really – and who might be the targets of Banville’s opprobrium, I am by no means equipped to judge; nor am I particularly interested. Is it worth remarking the fact that Louis Althusser and Paul de Man, those bogeymen of mauvaise foi, exemplary livers of lives at odds with their intellectual convictions (or those associated with them by their followers), are both mentioned in the acknowledgements, since Banville reframed episodes from their writing to flesh out the persona of his novel’s narrator, Axel Vander? Persona is a word that recurs in this novel: for where does a person begin and end if not with masks: the veteran actor of the Attic drama whose mask is ‘more like his face than his face is’; Harlequin’s mask; the executioner’s mask?
‘Man and mask are one.’
The main setting of the novel is Turin, a town that resonates with legends: there is the famously fraudulent Shroud, which reveals an imprint, on the winding sheet that serves to wrap or conceal a body, of the image of a real body – a work of art, perhaps; and of Nietzsche, who spent his last, crazed days there.
What sets the narrative in motion is the receipt of a letter, which threatens to bring down the carefully constructed edifice of the self Vander presents to the world:
Now I was cloven in two more thoroughly than ever, I who was always more than myself. On the one side there was the I I had been before the letter arrived, and now there was this new I, a singular capital standing at a tilt to all the known things that had suddenly become unfamiliar.The I on the page always is more than itself: ‘the I I had been’, doubling the vertical stroke, setting the I of the enunciation apart from the enunciated I; and then I, the operation of italicization defamiliarizing, setting the letter at odds with its upright counterparts.
Later Vander will describe the sensation of having left something behind, when, looking back to where one has been sitting, one imagines to see an obscene replica of oneself, ‘a limp, life-sized marionette, hands hanging and jointed limbs all awry, grinning woodenly at the ceiling’.
Cass Cleave, the writer of the letter, is in the thrall of the mysterious Mandelbaum syndrome, which condemns the sufferer to perceive byzantine patterns in the fabric of reality, to be constantly on the alert to the strangeness of how things ‘strike echoes everywhere’:
In her version of the world everything was connected; she could trace the dissolution of empires to the bending of a blade of grass, with herself as the fulcrum of the process. All things attended her.This is very like the madness of the artist. Vander jokingly proposes that Cass write his biography: ‘You could write it in the first person […] Pretend that you are me. I give you full permission.’ But she comes to believe that her role is ‘simply [to] perform the rites in the way that was required.’ The solution to the mystery is not something she is able to pry into; she is content merely to perform, to voice the catechism, to prophesy without understanding or being understood, like Cassandra.
Banville has Vander sprinkle his prose with moments of precarious self-disclosure reminiscent of Nabokov’s best delusionally knowing narrators, like this, a suitably twentieth-century updating of the elegiac paraclausithyron topos:
Yes, you, my most assiduous reader, will recognise the moment and its image, for I have employed it in many contexts, as a mocking emblem of the human condition: two people standing on either side of a locked door, one shut out and the other listening from inside, each trying to divine the other’s identity and intentions.‘Professor Vander’, insinuates Bartoli, a Clare Quilty to Vander’s Humbert Humbert, ‘holds that every text conceals a shameful secret, the hidden understains left behind by the author in his necessarily bad faith, and which it is the critic’s task to nose out.’
This is a book about bad faith, and the ways language conspires against us to thwart our attempts at self-disclosure. Writing in the confessional mode is especially subject to this bad faith, because there is, ‘in the very act of confession, an obscene self-congratulation for the virtue required to see your mistake and own up to it’, writes Tobias Wolff. There is a double intention behind every utterance, to withdraw even as we set forth, to conceal even as we reveal. And at the centre of it all is the masked figure of Harlequin, whose obscene laughter mocks our every attempt to fix our self in its essence.